Filmmaker Andrew Shapter's battle to make art and beat cancer
Story and Photos by Joe O'Connell, Fri., Oct. 10, 2014
The air outside Texas Oncology in South Austin smells of burnt electricity. The scent lingers as Andrew Shapter is summoned to radiation. White confetti covers the floor outside the room Shapter visits five days a week. It signals that someone – not Shapter – has completed treatment. Two emergency medical technicians steer a man reclined on a stretcher near a sign that reads CAUTION. VERY HIGH RADIATION AREA. Shapter greets the man, and they compare radiation treatments. The man has 35 scheduled, Shapter 33. "You can have my extras," the man says with a smile. Inside, Shapter strips his shirt off, dons a white mask molded precisely for his face, opens his laptop to a playlist he's put together for just this moment, and braces himself for the X-ray beam that will burn into his neck. Louis Armstrong sings, "What a Wonderful World."
Andrew Shapter, 47, has been many things in this life: a high school class clown who concocted homemade fart devices, an actor, a political junkie toiling in Washington, D.C., a successful fashion photographer, a documentary filmmaker, a husband, a father. Today he focuses on three challenges: Ford, a doe-eyed infant son crawling across the floor and urging his dad to play; a feature film, The Teller & the Truth, five years in the making; and squamous cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer that claims about 2,500 lives each year. "I had a choice of either going for the fierce fight or the long road," Shapter says. "With my son in mind, I decided I was going to take it hard and fast." The 20-minute radiation treatments are capped by once-a-week, six-hour chemotherapy sessions. On weekends, he crashes. Hard.
Shapter has made two documentary films. Before the Music Dies is a cautionary tale about corporate music. It marked his leap from still photography to the moving image, and was spurred both by the death of his musician older brother John Jr. and the desire as the father of then-2-year-old daughter Faron to do something that mattered. During the film's tour, he shot Happiness Is, which seeks to define what brings bliss to life. "I've never seen an adversity, a challenge that didn't lead to growth," one expert says in the doc.
The Teller & the Truth is different. For one thing, it's not an actual documentary, though it at times pretends to be. It is instead the story of a beautiful bank teller who goes missing in 1970s Smithville, Texas. In muted, dreamlike tones and images akin to still photographs, the mystery of a life is slowly unveiled. It's an ambitious project that has haunted Shapter as he's pieced it together over the years while doing other video projects to pay the bills.
The film is a distillation of everything he has been and done up to this point. Raised in Fort Worth by a businessman father with Republican leanings and an artistically inclined mother who loved President Kennedy, the classroom cutup was more interested in acting than academics. He landed at Southwest Texas State (now Texas State) studying political science, fell in love, and chased the object of his affection to Washington, D.C., where he interned with the National Wildlife Federation. One day, he answered a call from Sen. Ted Kennedy's office seeking an intern for an Earth Day project. He sent himself and ended up eating pizza with Kennedy. When the love affair fizzled, Shapter found himself back in Texas attending school and interning with then-State Rep. Betty Denton. One day he looked down at the papers he was pushing and saw a black-and-white world. He longed for color.
His parents' divorce and his father John Douglas Shapter's remarriage to his mother's best friend proved the catalyst for Shapter's photography. When his father invited 12-year-old Andrew along on the European honeymoon, the trip came with a Canon AE-1. "When I came back, instead of being bitter, my mother told me how amazing my photos were," Shapter says. That passion blossomed in his 20s. He met his muse in an 18-year-old model named Rosie Ochoa, future mother to his daughter Faron. His images of her in ads for upscale Austin clothier By George drew him quickly to the forefront of the local photography scene. The couple lived in Europe and at the famed Chelsea Hotel in New York City as Shapter plied his trade on a larger scale. Their breakup was a long process that ended peacefully in a friendship that endures.
Todd Wolfson emerged on the Austin photography scene at the same time as Shapter. "We fell in love with each other as artists," Wolfson says. "Making art is about getting out of the way and letting things happen." On the set of The Teller & the Truth, Wolfson saw firsthand what Shapter coaxes from actors. "He is drawing them, painting them," he says.
Framed on the wall of Shapter's Travis Heights home is a photo used in a By George ad of a male biker looking back down the dirt road he has just traveled. He realizes now that his best photos were mini-films. He is waiting for a letter, an email, a call, anything from the Toronto International Film Festival. Encouraged by Dan Guando, executive vice president of acquisitions for the Weinstein Company, whom he met with two years ago, Shapter is aiming for a top festival. But he's worried that the early print he sent without the musical score is too rough despite his working with local editor Nevie Owens, former assistant to Sandra Adair, Richard Linklater's longtime editor. Shapter looks to Linklater as a touchstone to what might have been if he'd followed his instinct and gone into film earlier. "I took the longest route possible, but I got there," he says.
It's been a tough week. The actor/comedian Robin Williams has committed suicide, and Shapter, who tries to dine alone at Curra's at least once a week, found himself getting weepy at the table. "He was on the level with us," Shapter wrote on his Facebook page of Williams. "His sad eyes were looking right at us, but most of us (including me) were laughing too hard to notice." Shapter wondered, were the tears a reaction to the chemo or was it a pure emotional response? "There's a meaning-of-life mindset when you're going through what I'm going through," he admits.
Chunks of Shapter's beard fell out in the night. The hair on the back of his head is also disappearing, but it remains full on top. He wears high collars to hide the redness and blisters on his neck. The pain is like a fire burning inside and out, all the time, like someone has branded him with a torch. A bump on his chest is an implanted port where the chemo drugs are applied.
It began with a bump on his back. He had no health insurance but saw a doctor and had it removed. Then something appeared in one of his sideburns. He talked to Dr. Susan Dozier, who urged him to get a full CT scan. He paid $1,800 cash for it. The scan found a tumor near his ear and another deeper. Then Obamacare came into effect and he gratefully signed up. Four surgeries later, he is missing part of his ear, a rhomboid muscle, and 33 lymph nodes. The chemo/radiation combo aims to burn out pathways and make sure the cancer doesn't move anywhere else.
His house on a shady hillside is like Shapter – ever growing and changing. "When we first met, this house was like Grand Central Station," says Christina Fernandez Shapter, whose large, expressive eyes sparkle amid the weariness of new parenthood mixed with worry about her husband. "People would just walk in. We created a space out of nothing." Christina earned a master's degree in film from the University of Texas before moving to Los Angeles, where she worked as an assistant producer on the Paramount lot and also as an actress until the urge to return home kicked in. She saw an ad for an "artist's treehouse" for rent behind Shapter's house. "The moment I saw him I knew I would marry him," she says. Shapter noted her jawline and thought a son born to her would be perfect. Faron, now 13, arrives wearing a "Shopping is my cardio" shirt. She needs a check for her uniform and books at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders. Shapter searches for a pen, and she says, "Dad, you have too many checkbooks." Faron's mother, waiting in the car, has become fast friends with Christina.
Christina now manages two rustic rentals behind their house, including the one she first lived in. It's not always easy. Today there's a sewage leak and men that Andrew jokingly has dubbed "the hobos" are at work fixing the pipe. The men, one step from homelessness, include Mike, lanky and quiet, for whom the Shapters provide a place to stay and ample work. "We create work for people if we can," Christina Shapter says. "It comes back around."
As the sun begins to set, Leilani Galvan arrives with homemade ice cream balls for Shapter. They met when he came to the window of JuiceLand with his wife and daughter to place an order. In her "big expressive eyes framed in an angelic face," Shapter saw Bette Davis. He saw the star of his film. She was skeptical at first, but soon the two bonded and were traveling wherever the film took them.
Shapter told her to imagine her lover had just been shot in front of her and she was running in the opposite direction. Click. The image of soft aching eyes – the first he took of her – graces the poster for the project. When he was hired to work on a documentary about the origins of yoga, he took Galvan to India as his assistant. They shot her in a Madras orphanage for his film. "She made a profound connection with the kids," he says. "They treated her like a queen. They saw a beautiful American movie star."
Galvan is perhaps as driven as Shapter. The Hawaii native teaches yoga five days a week and has moved up at JuiceLand to handling public relations and marketing. She cooks Shapter bone soup to keep his strength up. "He saw me through my 20s," she says from his front porch. As the sky darkens, the two share some marijuana. "It's from Willie's connection," Shapter only halfway jokes.
Shapter says his doctors agree that marijuana, particularly in edible form, is the best cure for the nausea that comes with his treatment. And Shapter has spent time with Willie Nelson. He directed a music video for Nelson's song "A Horse Called Music" and ended up spending time with Nelson touring his ranch and shooting 150 hours of the famed singer-songwriter being himself at home. Shapter's close-up image of Nelson's 81-year-old hands strumming beat-up guitar Trigger has become the logo for emails sent out to the musician's fans. When Shapter was invited to ride on Nelson's tour bus, he brought Galvan along to shoot footage for the ever-evolving The Teller & the Truth.
"Look! A robin!" Shapter says. "That's my mother."
His two dogs Teddy Bear and Larry tug at their leashes as he takes a bird-watching walk through Travis Heights. The early morning sun is golden. He checks a bird-watching app on his phone, and grimaces at where city of Austin crews have cut into the neighborhood trees. His mother, who died in 2003, was the bird watcher first. "She was a consumer of the finer things in life," he says. Shapter's two brothers and two sisters were already teens when he was born. Shapter wanted to be a baseball player like the older boys. When his parents split, Nancy Ford Shapter took him to the symphony as she grieved, and thoughts of sports faded into the music that always played in their home.
A song by Ravi Shankar lilts from Shapter's living room computer. The email has arrived from Toronto, and he has called in the troops to read it together. "I left it all on the field," Shapter says. Old friend Matt Skinner sits on the couch. Christina holds hands with Ford, who smiles and excitedly takes wobbly baby steps toward her. The boy's shirt reads "Tough like Daddy." Shapter paces and waits for Galvan. He gulps from a glass of water – the treatments leave him endlessly parched. When Galvan arrives, they embrace and huddle around the laptop. Inhale. Hope. Read. Exhale. His film has been rejected. "I guess I'm still pushing to get through the gate," he says. "I'm at peace."
It's time to go to daily radiation. Skinner drives as Shapter processes the rejection. Before he left the house, he sent a note to Guando at the Weinstein Company. It's been a hard week. "I let the fear come in," he admits. He meets with his doctor first and goes over the laundry list of pain medications: Hydrocodone, OxyContin, Dilaudid. "I'm not a fan of Dilaudid," Shapter said. He took that drug the day he had a panic attack during radiation, he explains, then slips into the radiation room with his laptop and water bottle.
Outside Skinner waits. He was studying film at UT in the late Nineties when he heard that Shapter took the best head shots around. "We got along like peas and carrots from the get-go," he says. He remembers going to Venezuela with Shapter for a photo shoot. They took the wrong taxi with a driver they feared was a bandit or worse. Skinner recalls Shapter breaking the silence with these words: "We'll all be his bitch by the end of the night." These days Skinner is completing a documentary about legendary Texas high school football coach John Outlaw and is Shapter's most reliable transportation to appointments. "He's the kind of guy in middle school you'd be lucky to have as your friend," Skinner says. "Shit's going to go down, but it's going to be a lot of fun." Skinner mentions Jim Kelly, the famed former Buffalo Bills quarterback who had part of his jaw removed as he battled cancer, leading to the "Kelly tough" catch phrase. "I often say it's Shapter tough," Skinner says. "It's excruciating to him, but he doesn't let on at all."
Toronto thought The Teller & the Truth was a documentary, Shapter learns. The film's IMDb page also had the film incorrectly listed as a doc. With treatment nearing its end – but a month of rehab after to endure – he pulls the film from all upcoming festival consideration. "Not only can't I do the film festivals, I can't even edit," Shapter says as he walks into the chemotherapy room. It's his last visit. In two days he'll have his last radiation treatment.
"The key is to get a great chair in the corner or by a window," he says. Twenty brown reclining chairs dominate the room. Most are empty now, but the room will fill by noon. Shapter has shown up expecting to receive only fluids and nausea medication, but his doctor has ordered one last chemo dose. "I'm in charge of my own body," Shapter says and has a meeting with his doctor moved up.
Dr. Punit Chadha looks like a South Asian version of Paul Sorvino with long sideburns and his hair piled high and slicked back. He's barrel-chested and matches his slacks and wing-tipped shoes with socks covered in yellow, pink, and purple polka dots. Shapter talks of using marijuana to ease the side effects of treatment. "Of course I fly out to Colorado for marijuana and come back," he jokes. The doctor grins and replies, "That's not the most efficient way."
Chadha mentions the NFL's Kelly and pro baseball pitcher Curt Schilling as poster boys for cancer in remission. They will always carry a water bottle, he says, because of the effects of treatment on saliva production. Shapter realizes he will, too. They agree to give Shapter a half dose of chemotherapy.
Shapter shivers under a white blanket in the chemo room. His favorite nurse, Susan Neary, arrives. She is blond, all smiles, and clearly in charge as she kindly talks to Shapter with an occasional pause for the stutter that has hounded her since youth. "I wonder why I chose a career where I have to talk to people," she says. Neary fell into the job of oncology nurse 14 years ago. "I like the population, and it helps with my spiritual growth," she says. She puts a brown cover over the bag of chemotherapy about to drip into Shapter's chest. "The brown bag special," she says of the covering meant to keep light from affecting potency.
Shapter tells her he won't ring the bell that waits across the room. The ringing marks the end of chemotherapy. "In solidarity with my fellow patients," he says. "When my film premieres, some of these people will be [alive] and some will not. I know I will be."
He's back with Neary two days later – this time for hydration before his final radiation. Shapter is excited. He's discovered a report that marijuana is not only good for his symptoms, it also might help his father, who is experiencing signs of Alzheimer's. He originally read about it in the Huffington Post but sent his Dad the Fox News version. "He asked what it would do to him," Shapter says. "I told him it would probably put him in a better mood, give him the munchies, and help him to sleep better."
Across the way a beautiful young woman – the type Andrew Shapter the fashion photographer might once have shot – squeezes a stress ball as her mother, arms folded at her chest, looks on.
Shapter's documentary Happiness Is talks about upward and downward comparisons – you can either look up at those who have more or down at those who have less. It's a philosophy that has pulled him through treatment. "I got so much out of it," he says. "I reconnected with old friends. I made new friends here. I feel lucky, but it is a pain in the ass. It never, ever made me feel sorry for myself." Neary smiles and shakes her head, gently correcting him. "You may not realize it, but the people around you know it." As the hydration ends and he prepares to go to radiation, Neary leaps in the air and whoops for Shapter. "It'll pass," she says of recovery, "and you'll be better and better and better."
Skinner waits in radiation. Shapter doesn't want the confetti either, but Skinner has called in a group of Shapter's friends to commemorate the moment. "I wish he would celebrate this," Skinner says. "I pray in my heart of hearts that he doesn't think he's going to have to come back. He's one of the good ones. It seems like the good ones always get hit, but this son of a bitch will hit back with reckless abandon."
Skinner has the radiation technicians stall Shapter with conversation while the friends amass in the building's doorway with signs. Then Skinner enters. The two men clasp hands. Shapter's face is ashen, but he smiles. Once outside, the nurses and technicians sprinkle confetti on Shapter's head. He smiles again.
The next week is the roughest, but two weeks out Shapter is lifting weights, walking the dogs twice a day. He's cancer-free at the moment, but he knows it could return. His weight is down from a pre-chemo 161 to 130, so he shovels in pie and sugary soft drinks for the sheer calories. Adair, Linklater's editor, watched his film and the fear overcame him as he peeked around the corner and saw her writing notes furiously. She said he needed to make more films. She also made suggestions for edits that helped him see a beacon of light at the end of this tunnel. He is now editing and aiming his sights on a hometown premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival. He's itching to get to work, and a new project is percolating in his mind. It's a documentary called F-Stop about the evolving world of photography in the digital age. "We'll talk about how developing your own 'eye' can set you apart," he says.
Is there a moral to the agony of cancer treatment, the frustrations of making art on film? Shapter looks to Alan Graham, founder of Austin-based homeless outreach group Mobile Loaves & Fishes, whom he gave the parting shot in Happiness Is. "Alan Graham says contentment represents the greatest form of happiness there is," Shapter says. "Recognize what you have; appreciate what you have. Don't get caught up in envy for things you don't need."
For more images of Andrew Shapter at home and in treatment, see austinchronicle.com/photos.